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In my opinion

Big data research awards show the potential of international collaboration

The recently announced awards from the Trans-Atlantic Platform support projects across the disciplinary spectrum.


If you missed the recent news from the Trans-Atlantic Platform, or T-AP – a little-known international research coalition – take another look. T-AP just announced the winners of the fourth round of the Digging into Data Challenge, a competition designed to support groundbreaking big data research projects. The implications of the initiative, though, go much further. The awards are a case study in how to do ambitious international, multidisciplinary research collaboration – exactly the sort of thing that was just recommended strongly by the Advisory Panel on Federal Support for Fundamental Science, chaired by David Naylor.

The Trans-Atlantic Platform is a consortium of major humanities and social sciences agencies from North America, South America and Europe. With its original work funded by the European Union and agencies’ respective governments, T-AP is a global first – with tremendous potential for building transformative, multinational international research collaborations.

The Digging into Data Challenge itself was launched in 2009 to spark research into an increasingly relevant question for all disciplines: How do we change the way we do research, now that we can access colossal amounts of data? Or, in the words of the award organizers: What do you do with a million books?

This round of awards is the first to be funded under the auspices of the T-AP research granting agencies, which include Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

The recently announced  awards, worth about $12.3 million, support exciting projects across the disciplinary spectrum, including one that aims to produce a better understanding of the standards of living in different countries by comparing millions of online prices; a computerized method for deciphering ancient Mesopotamian writing that has the potential to make enormous stores of ancient knowledge accessible to the world; and a project focused on how journalists can responsibly cover terrorism based on an analysis of seven decades of terrorism reporting.

Fascinating research aside, one of the most impressive aspects of these awards is the level of international collaboration. To qualify, each research team was required to include at least three members from participating countries from both sides of the Atlantic.

These kinds of networks are critically important for the Canadian research community. The Canadian Digging into Data winners, for instance, will enjoy new opportunities to become immersed in the research approaches of their international peers and to showcase their own talents on an international stage. If the government of Canada takes the advice of the blue-ribbon panel chaired by David Naylor, the successful completion of this round of the Digging into Data Challenge could be a sign of more worthwhile international programming from T-AP in the future.

Another key achievement of these awards is the way they’ve brought multidisciplinary teams together. Take, for instance, the group behind the award-winning project Analyzing Child Language Experiences around the World, which includes a Canadian psychologist, an Argentinian philosopher, a Finnish linguist and a German computer scientist, among others. Together, they are developing new methods of speech recording and processing that will enable the analysis of thousands of hours of recorded speech, which the group will use to study the language development process of young children.

There are several equally impressive examples of this kind of multidisciplinary work among the award winners. What’s more, these projects are producing new kinds of research tools that will also have multidisciplinary impacts. For instance, the same tool used to analyze the speaking environments of young children could be used to address different research questions in other fields.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that an award focused on big data is able to push the boundaries on international, multidisciplinary research collaboration. These researchers are dealing with data sets whose sheer size begs exploration from multiple perspectives and through multiple research techniques. It’s an inspiring example of how researchers from across the globe and across disciplines can come together to tackle ambitious research questions. It’s noteworthy also that the humanities and social sciences are demonstrating leadership in this area, illustrating how research into human behaviour and experience can enrich research into complex, large-scale challenges.

Humanities and social sciences scholars hope to see many more such projects develop through the Trans-Atlantic Platform and other international research collaborations in the coming years. Because, if this is a sign of things to come, the prospects for how everyone’s future could be enriched by research are boundless.

Michael Sinatra is director, research dissemination, at the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, and a professor in the English department at Université de Montréal.

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